Area: 46km² (18mi²)
The Aran Islands, or the Arans as many call them, are group of three islands located on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Galway. They are; Inishmore which is the largest, Inishmaan and Inisheer which is the smallest. Collectively they have a population of just over 1200 people who primarily speak the Irish language which flourished due to its rather remote location. The islands are like one undulating reef with no real significant mountains or hills, although on the western side of Inishmór and Inishnoon the land rises high enough to create some very dramatic cliffs over the Atlantic.
Little is known of the originally inhabitants however it is widely assumed they located there to either hide, or be able to defend themselves from attack. Back then, farming was a little easier to pursue on the islands rather than the densely forested mainland. With that being said, the islands are not particularly appealing for habitation as they are primarily made of limestone with no naturally occurring topsoil. Early settlers attempted to correct this by using seaweed and sand from the shoreline to augment the soil. To protect this, drystone walls were built which today are one of the features of the islands.
Although we are not certain of who the original inhabitants were we do know they were there many centuries ago. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered at least seven prehistoric stone forts, with the oldest one, Dún Aonghasa on Inishmore, dating back to 1100BC.
Saint Enda of Aran was a warrior King from Ulster who was converted to Christianity by his sisiter Saint Franchea. In the late 5th century he established his first monastery at Killeaney on Aran Mor. Over the following years it, along with the islands, became a centre for learning, piety and religious pursuit. By the time Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke, arrived in Ireland in the 9th century, there were more than a dozen such monasteries. Saint Enda is today considered the patriarch of Irish monasticism and consequently most of the great Irish saints have a connection with the islands. St. Brendan, Jarlath of Tuam, Finnian of Clonard and St. Columba have all been associated with the islands. As a result, today the islands contain some 38 national monuments.
Several well-known structures remain from this period including the 5th century Church of Saint Brecan, a prehistoric ringfort on Inisheer called Dún Formna which would later be the site of O’Briens castle in the 14th century. From the 14th century onwards control of the islands was disputed between two Gaelic families, the O’Briens and the O’Flahertys. Unfortunately, many of these ancient sites were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century as he attempted destroy all Irish history and culture. However, there is still found on the islands clocháns, dry-stone beehive huts that were used by early Christians for meditation and prayer.
A typical settlement on the islands was known as a Clachan, a cluster of small single story houses with thatched rooves. Many residents developed a style of clothing based on homespun materials such as tweed and wool. Even today the islands have a wonderful reputation for the quality of their clothing and the cream coloured knitted sweaters. Up until the 1930’s many people on the island wore these garments and they became known as Aran dress which included bright red skirts and black shawls for the women along with baggy woollen trousers and waistcoats with a colourful belt (crios) for the men.